-->Dark Valley Days
I’ve been in Hatch Valley's
heat, have seen enormous
swarms of bees collecting
by the highways. We
were on the way
for the music but
for a job that would make
The dry lake beds
the Mesquite trees
the small stretches of bosque,
that all rejects me.
that all rejects me.
And you? You've seen
it more than me—
La LLorona walking acequias
long after I left Cruces.
La LLorona walking acequias
long after I left Cruces.
Los que han pasado
I'm scared of the small wonders waiting for me at night. I always leave a light to move about, to know the shadows. I’ve become increasingly aware of the night sounds on my street, and when these songs find me, there will be only one sound remaining: blowing sand against my window. I have no more prayers, just a terrible knowledge of seasonal nights in temperate America. I could count every leaf that falls from every oak; I could count the oaks themselves, but there’s no way I could have predicted living here now, looking out my bedroom window to a broken fence gate swinging back and forth across a background of oak, maple, and sunflowers. It’s September and the hornets are at their most aggressive, searching for sweets, anything to help their small hives survive winter. I’ve just come back from New Mexico, to ready myself for fall and winter.
Lately, my focus has been on the life of my family. It was after the war. My father and his brother had unknowingly brought home with them a cynical, worldly masculinity, a wild departure from the old machismo of their father. Lost in the fields of history and culture, time silences many voices, many lives are unremarkably sad and moving, but never told of, therefore never known. It is this knowing and sharing of each life story that sustains families and whole cultures. The history of this silence, this way of speaking as not to reveal the soul, pervaded my childhood, and now haunts the edges of my life in self-imposed exile, here in the Midwest. The whole world would disappear in pain and agony if were not for the conscious act of writing. And how was this everyday agony played out in the small Mexican Catholic towns of the West? Is the agony of life suffocated by the quiet, distanced voices of the dead? Or has the agony swallowed them, as well as me, like the desert, allowing our voices to surface briefly to chronicle a life of tiendas and football games and fresh tortillas made on the gas stove purchased after the war? There is so much I remember of that family.
The Life of Virginia Trujillo
Toward the end of my mother’s life, she thought she was being poisoned, and that a small demon with a sharp knife waited for her just beyond the window of her bedroom. She stopped keeping her diary in a neat book, and instead wrote on scraps of paper she’d find in her dresser: old bills, nursing instructions from long ago. From what I can tell, she just gave up. This is in sharp contrast to the picture of her from just 2 years before: standing proudly on fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco with the Pacific washing away her fear of travel, her fear of leaving New Mexico.
My mother, for most her life, never left New Mexico, and could only dream of the outside world. She made this up by collecting kitsch and real art objects from China. Feather and shell paintings, landscapes, running horses, delicate vases poised on ebony frames. Her life was lived far away, in the imagination of a Chinese painter who made cheap shell paintings for her, only for her. To go back would mean to trace Virginia's life with the factual black strokes of typeface or inkjet; I would fill in the colorful woman from what I knew, the whispers and secret letters I've traded for these words.
Virginia Trujillo was born in Rincon, New Mexico in 1935, to Josephine Koleman Trujillo, who was only fourteen at the time. As she grew up, she was told that Josephine was her sister, and that her maternal grandmother, Nicanora, was her mother. By the time Virginia was eight, she had the job of leading her blind grandfather, Trinidad Trujillo, through the streets to get mail and to buy dry goods at the little tienda that sat there for 75 years on the same dirt road. During the late summer along the arroyos and acequias orange mallow grew. That and Kansas sunflowers. Virginia would take a handful of wild flowers home for Nicanora, a bundle that Trinidad tightly held as she led him along a small path home.
From here, Virginia’s history jumps to meet me: right now I'm holding a small velvet purse my mother made when she was ten for her aunt Adela: it folds in half and has a pearl clasp; on the inside, under durable plastic, miniature crucifii, tiny images of Saint Anthony and the Virgin of Guadalupe, bits of typewritten words from the Catechism. All on a background of thin gold leaf. Knowing of my mother's devotion to Jesús Cristo, I will begin my search for her spirit and my family here, holding the purse I know: here are red and black threads, here are soft, sewing hands.
When I think about Virginia as I knew her, I struggle mostly with the fear that grew out of her, that she'd manifest daily, as I got old enough to remember and write. I have to remind myself that this is a conscious attempt to take those stories and fragments and memories to reconstruct the past in ways that will honor the dead, and will pave the way for any longing human mestizo to find the path leading back home.
"Listen Jesús, Don't You Care about Your Race?"
When I'd come home in the afternoon I'd find my father washing the dishes. He looked like a sailor in his white dungarees and tee-shirt. In the background la Sonora Chihuahuense played on a console stereo system, red and yellow disco lights blinking in rhythm on each side. Because he hadn't been home in days, he made his penance in the kitchen. Of course he'd been drunk, probably in Las Vegas or Juárez. He had a job selling insurance on the reservation for a while in the late summer. Saturday mornings we'd drive to a small lake in the forest and he'd cook eggs and chorizo for us in the middle of nowhere. Or we'd go to see his relatives. At home, one uncle had a room away from the main house. Over the years he made a private bar, complete with beautiful crystal, high-ball glasses, schooners, and snifters arranged in front of a blue mirror that reminded me of the sea, how it meets the desert at Puerto Peñasco. Rudy and his brothers would drink until they fell asleep, but sometimes they would quarrel, or drive through the dark desert to Juárez, unable to swerve from the violence and the days away from their families that caused us so much pain. There were no dreams left for my dad. He'd pushed his life so far and really hadn't gotten anywhere. He liked to party. So he wandered away from his family into the desert. But then sometimes at night he would wake me from the deepest sleep to tell me that he'd dreamt that I was lost in some unforgivable maze of people and buildings and he'd been sent out by God to find me. My dad knew things that could kill the mind, that could annihilate consciousness.
Life without John Lennon
His son the poet was playing touch football in the street the day after they shot Lennon. One of his friends was running for the ball the way you do when you can see over the trees and onto the next street where Cindy Gutierrez is hanging out smoking at Cottonwood Park on this weird sunny day in the Sunbelt all the dead leaves are spinning and its only a month after El Día de Muertos. Eddy's thinking about how Cindy is wearing Levis Big Bells. That morning he’d found himself reading liner notes from an album he liked:
“None of us is getting any younger. When, in a generation or so, a radio-active, cigar-smoking child, pickniking on Saturn asks you what that Beatle affair was all about--‘Did you actually know them?’—don’t try to explain all about the long hair and the screams. Just play the kid some track from this album and he’ll probably understand what it was all about. The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today.” This is what he was thinking: “It’s not true and from my particular perspective, with the north wind that won’t stop until April, it’s not true not true we never made it to Saturn and God help us, never fell in love again like they did in 1964. My mother waited every morning for the world to end in that red radiation from the sky. It never came either. So we’ve all been left, en este lado, to stay and make this place heaven. The boys of AD 2000 look back at me in their smoking mirrors, in their web pages show how they like to make money, how their guitars are made in China how their shoes are sewn by Pakistani children in the desert town of Islamabad.”
Listened to the World, Turning
My mother’s father was a Mestizo railroad worker who’d appear every so often in Rincon, NM looking for la grifa to ease his long trips through the North end of the Chihuahua desert, from Alamogordo down to Deming and then up to Silver City. In Rincon there worked my grandmother, Josefina, at a café that sold roasted green chiles stuffed with goat cheese. She never told me his name, but she remembered his wide, bright eyes, his thin brown hair. When I was four she showed me a picture of him she kept behind the bureau. He kept his hair greased down with Vitalis, wore a bow-tie, and hid his gnarled hands with a fedora.
* * *
My mother would wake me every morning from the same dream: it was the end of the world and we had to gather all our belongings into stacks that were about 4 foot high and 2 foot square. Only the things that could fit, like clothes, watches, books. Somehow these piles would be sealed into concrete to form perfect towers that lined miles of trenches in the desert outside of Deming. My brother would then appear, with a sculpture that grew impossibly the closer he got to it. If I told mom it was “infinitely complex”, she’d cough at the words I used, as we sat at the breakfast table between gulps of coffee and bacon. Before we left for school she’d put on the Beatles album, the one with “Hey Jude.” JoAnn, her sister, was calling on the phone as usual: “oye, sis—they’re gonna show a Beatles movie on Dialing for Dollars today—but my TV don’t get channel 7. Por favor, can you send GoGo over to fix the antenna?”
In the last years of the twentieth century, the television will become the most important household item: you might call your friends with the videophone, order and even work from home. In this time of tranquility it will be difficult not to be indifferent. To the environment. To the food supply. Even to love. And what if I told you there was no such thing as time the way you see it?
When my mother Virginia died she had already lost use of her legs from diabetes. My sister had been bringing to the hospital a pink transistor radio my mother had kept in the kitchen. So when she died the oldies station was playing this terribly obscure Beatles song, the b-side of a Decca 45 a-sided with “Twist and Shout”—“There’s a Place” ground along in that Mercy-beat way—an old sea song turned back to love--We get to the small room overlooking the ocean and my mother has not died. She is waiting in the next room, ready to see the Pacific again.
My mother has not died. She and my father ride small boats all night to the moon.
Back Home Again
Back home again and the mariachi music swells like one of those Mylar balloons you see at the grocery store for sale: happy birthday, anniversary, baby, baby. There’s always one somewhere in somebody’s hospital room too. Down the hall from my dying mother there was a cluster of them, a silver get well wish along with loony-toons characters, silver balloons shining off the fluorescent glow of overhead lights.
Rudy is talking: “Well, when my father come back from the war he had the old adobe house plumbed and lit for the first time. There’s a picture of him standing outside, looking at the sun. His mother was inside cooking tortillas and his father was on the porch playing “Jesusita en Chihuahua” on an old fiddle.”
Back home again he remembered when this dream played itself like an old extra movie he forget to watch, a film he know he had in his collection but haven’t seen yet. And he could ever look at mirrors! The reflecting gaze would reject him too. It was this way for along time.
Rudy was in the kitchen, fixing pancakes. The same sound from the stereo I heard in my dreamy dimension. Now able to see my father clearly, who he was, I made it through his kitchen in a quiet, birdlike way, careful not to touch him at all but also careful to make perfect steps to the kitchen table now surrounded in white New Mexico sunlight broken by the shiny white blinds rolled open.
Inside at Tiny’s
A real New Mexican restaurant. Fresh-warm tortillas, sunny-side up eggs on top of red chile enchiladas. The vatos in the next booth are talking about guns and eating their green chile stew—chingao, this is good. Back home again means eating at Tiny's in the Valley every so often and listening to how your friends and your cousins sound, how you would have sounded if you hadn't been rescued by that blue-eyed scientist's daughter, kidnapped, taken first to the Arizona desert and then to Boston, forced to confess love even though none existed but she'd rescued you from all that--the dirty job in a chop shop, or at best a welding certificate and enough high school trig to work in the machine shop your uncle owned.
A real New Mexican vato loco will tell you “homes, ese, it's been this long since I been in the back of a squad.” He'll hold up two fingers for each year and you can see that his hands are covered in tattoos: numbers and letters in the gothic script all his friends adore. The last time, the cops came at me right away when I got down from my car. I had a wallet. They beat the shit out of me. They locked me in a sweltering squad car for two hours and then taunted me. The knuckles of his left hand replicate one officer's badge number, to remind him of the justice he must mete out in dreams. He sleeps on his fists. It's not going to be in this life, mijo.
A real Vato Loco will tell you he suffers a sickness from the stars, that his father drank at a place called Pal Joey's, that the world isn't right and never will be. We were making dreams but our father had nothing for us except the mystery of his life: another wife somewhere? He was lost more often than before and his real gift became the fictions he shaped to lie to us all. You can go some places in the high desert and find the remnants of late summer pools that filled with the hard rain of monsoon storms flying up from the sea of Cortez. Sometimes you'll find the desiccated remains of a tadpole or a minnow in an odd round patch where the sand only seems wet.
My father, Rudolfo Carrillo, is born in a small adobe house in central Las Cruces, and named after film Star Rudolf Valentino
In the background you’re hearing the dim strains of “Jesusita en Chihuahua” played on a fiddle tuned down a half step to match the out-of-tune accordion also puffing away at the old Mexican standard whose significance is lost to you, lost like the hundred-fold fiddle strings your grandfather broke in the course of his mad career as a musician of weddings. What remains as you try to focus for the last five hours of the trip is some sense of nostalgia that will bring you home, bring you all home.
As a child, my father suffered the graveyard fears of el coco, heard the dry wind rattle the windows, saw small scorpions skitter across the dirt lots where he and his friends played without shoes in the summer. Because of some innate talent for talking and numbers, my father found himself moved from the “Mexican” school in central Las Cruces to a school where he could prosper among the gringos. Now because he is dead the only thing to figure here is how he lived and the events of his life will unfold like little prayer books. I have not much left of my father except some photos, some cuff-links, a pair of cowboy boots, and several winter jackets.
So the first picture I draw is like that still instant when you or anybody else reading these words begins to draw the scene in your own head: there’s my father, sitting somewhere in New York City. It’s right after the war. He’s sitting with a girl and another sailor I’ll never know. Have they’ve been drinking or celebrating? The table is clear and all are well-dressed, posing. Past these facts, it’s all conjecture. There are the ghosts of men in the background, at the bar rail, drinking. I know that day that my father had several pictures taken of him in his dark blue suit, smiling, ready to show off his astonishing discoveries.
So when I go back to my father’s fears, I have to put many of these pictures together--there photographs which sometimes betray the hint of a real, tangible world surrounding the subject posed to tell his tale to the future, with only the language of film and subconscious yearnings to decipher the past, my father, how he may have lived. Many of the photos are dark and impossible to decipher. And when my father appears, he is no different from any other man who was photographed not knowing I would save the days of his life for this new project unfolding.
When he was no more, when he’d been rendered to ashes, what remained were the crisp, yellowing pictures of weddings, meetings, those days of dancing in newly mown hay on a wooden floor of the parish hall—hey man, they all just got home and the war was over and they had so much in abundance—they quiet ticking of their experiences on boats in the North Atlantic, pulling dead bodies from wrecked planes after combat, right after combat. Just like that the salt of the ocean dissolves flesh, rendering pilots and navigators to fine particles borne on the currents of time.
Now that the war’s begun
Now in this girded planet time when smooth technicians are again crafting their perfect plutonium spheres to make the world simply plutonian we find my father lost upon the sea, after fighting for the gringo empire which fed his family before the war. He, sailor-brave man of wicked deeds was born to see the planet shake, was born to fly, was born to replace pearls of wisdom his family left him in the desert city of Las Cruces New Mexico with his dim experiences in the East. It was time again to unwind. Same time in my dimension I am smoking myself into the silent space of my thoughts to find the holy spirit waiting to tell me more of mi familia, ellos que los perdí en el llano del Norte. When the war began I was in exile.
When the war began I lived exiled at the twist in the river separating the eastern forest forever from the prairie. We lived there and like miners never saw the sun, a lump of coal for the fire feeding our small desires to leave and live on a beach somewhere eating fresh citrus.
Virginia’s Message from the Stars
It was 1965 when my mother first conceived of the cosmic plan Mary had sifted into her during frequent visits in the summer of 1963. A message from the stars in those days was heresy to anyone who mentioned it, who talked that way. The first time, Virginia was vacuuming in the living room of her new house on Country Club Drive when she heard over the electric whirl of the Kirby 200 a popping sound, static electricity forming and folding around the corners of the room like small lightning. Next thing she knew, she found herself prostrate on the floor, watching as a small, image of Our Lady hovered onto and over the coffee table, and then back again. There after she caught the summer scent of the yellow Texas roses she’d planted in the front, under the picture window, and thought she saw the white robes of La Virgen flutter by. Three hours had gone by when she found herself pouring a glass of ice water in front of the fridge.
For the last five years, Virginia had been working as a secretary and typist at the Bell Laboratories of White Sands Army Depot and Missile Range. She’s been driving every day to Alamogordo in her 1957 Thunderbird, watching missiles go up up up into the azure New Mexico sky, typing the scribbled handwritten reports that junior scientists placed on a green metal tray on her desk. It was a political act to start dating Rudy. She’d been a beauty queen, Miss Pan America, and she rode an air-conditioned bus to Ciudad Chihuahua with photographers and with the newly crowned Seniorita del las Patrias Chihuahuenses. There was no trace of any ugliness, unless you counted that one of reporter who was drunk and disorderly before they’d reached Las Nutrias. The situation was a variable. You see, she felt alone in the world: her father she never knew, and for years she was told that her mother was her sister, that her grandmother was her mother. Now the grandmother, Nicanora, died in the winter of 1956, leaving Virginia alone to spin out of the small town of Rincon like a planet swerving from a cold, empty sun.
Its often been said that the law of physics demands that falling bodies may be captured by other gravitational sources, usually other planets or stars, in the local sense. Hence the invention of space flight. Hence the patterns of humans across the spaces they inhabit. Some are beautiful arcs, other bolts of wispy electrical discharge. As life turns out, we turn out escaping, and attracting, sending out bolts of love and hope into the void.
El ultimo chingaso de Rudy Carrillo
When he threw the punch, it wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular. As the fist hit home, Rudy was reminded of the time when he was throwing hooks in the navy, in the ring with a big black marine who’d won his division by knockout. In the North Atlantic Fleet, there were small bases all over the East Coast. Rudy had been made to box because he had been an athlete in high school. The punch slid off the guy’s jaw like a rock skipping water. A minute later, he found himself on the mat, bleeding from the nose and left eyebrow.
When he threw his last punch, it was against the gray Nashville twilight settling in his room like a familiar blanket. There was no sea, no pacific gull sound, no persistent smell of gun grease and hot gun-metal, or the distant pounding that meant the war was close enough. When his fist hit the mirror the pain he felt was unlike anything. A blazing crackle of pain, a blue flame that he could see igniting his hand. What it meant to be alive in those few seconds was a matter of delicate maneuvering: it was in the southern mirror light of that wicked Tennessee morning that he knew he’d never make it home to New Mexico, back to Tiny’s or the hot huevos ranchero breakfast, a slow waltz by Flaco Jimenenz on the jukebox.
Rudy also had a solid sense the impossible, but unlike his wife Virginia, his mind was not bent by an overactive thyroid and a poisonous upbringing—Rudy’s sense of the impossible rang like a cash register. For, impossibly, he had learned one thing in the Navy: a short stint as a yeoman lent him the notion of forever transferring funds back and forth like cards among a table-full of friends and adversaries. Rudy’s belief in a magical world only extended to the world of financing possibilities—a liquor store in Mesilla, New Mexico, later, a way to shift funds from several public accounts into one secret account that would cover his gambling debts.
When Rudy was lying in his bed for the last time it was like a hotel bed, something he never got used to, more unreasonable than the hospital beds that he’d wanted so bad to escape. That night my mother came to visit him and then all the men he’d dragged from Atlantic depths—the cries they made reminded him of how he was now wailing and shouting at the light. So it is that morning when he dies: twelve hundred and seventeen miles from Albuquerque.
Why I wrote this fission on a mission
The quest for an organic solution to the pain I’ve witnessed in my life drives me to write this manuscript. O reader, there was a time when guys like me were happy to teach high school or work in an office shuffling paper and carrying the mail in. It’s true on one account—I worked for a while as mail-carrier, wearing my grandfather’s watch as I took the mail around to lawyers and accountants who believed their places in the world were secure—each drove every day from a three-car garage home surrounded by woods. When I found myself living in the Northern Plains I thought it was a form of exile, a sending off to the void of snow and steam dancing in the blue icy air. Even now as I write the temperature outside isn’t even one above zero. The frigid, killing cold makes the prairie and the woods desert-dry, without remorse, barren, a land-locked sea of frozen earth, lakes, and waterfalls.
We grew up on the edge of poverty, surrounded by dry hills, biting cholla, sometimes muddy arroyos where the sand toads lived in the summer. We often took-in whole sides of beef and pork from my grandparents. Our refrigerator was stocked with welfare cheese and butter, twenty pound chunks stamped USDA.
It’s not that Rudy didn’t try to make a living—in his own way he was doing much better than his father ever did, sorting the mail and playing fiddle on Friday nights. And because they were children of the Great Depression, because each had suffered in childhood from hunger and loneliness and had seen more of life than was really necessary: if Virginia was subject to the wired obsessions of her mother and grandmother, then Rudy was subject to the harsh reactive violence of his father, the quiet patience of his mother who rolled out thick white dough every morning without complaint, watching the clear sun rise over Las Cruces, only thinking how warm it would be, how the kitchen would fill with heat and the light smoke of slightly singed tortillas.
He had in his command a whole set of operations to guarantee the safety of the family. One of the most successful involved the ruse of selling insurance—since the state regulated not the charging of fees on the part of an insurance salesman, or “agent” as the case might be, he was free to charge a great price on behalf of his agency; this, along with cheap, B- insurance he sold, which was of little consequence, allowed him to make a simple living. With the twins, he had to work harder. This often meant selling to the miners and ranchers of the Navajo nation, men in risky jobs, cops, road-workers and even the bartenders who sold to drunks all along the highway which went through Gallup, New Mexico, past drive-in liquor stores, gas stations, jewelry shops filled with old silver and turquoise hocked by desperate men in search of some solace from the death they’d seen in the timber mills outside of Thoreau, NM. Rudy portrayed himself as an operative against a world that held out the last thin promise of a lottery win, a run in Vegas, a set of hunches that landed him in the thick of things.
So one afternoon the smell of something burning reminded him of the time when he had actually sat in an old Navajo hogan eating mutton stew with an old man and his wife who were going to buy his expensive, useless life insurance. But the old man felt that Rudy was desperate, and perhaps needed to be at home right now, watching his kids, getting them some frozen pizzas or something. Watching cable TV. So he bought a month, paid a premium and an agency fee, and fed Rudy dinner in a mud and pine building he’d built as a young man, some forty year ago.
What was really burning was a small part of the inner lining of Rudy’s soul. At this point, his body had made contact with a part of reality that demanded he give up something, possibly his soul or are least and lease he had on a pleasant afterlife. If there was anything, then, he thought, he’d end up wandering the earth forever, still unhappy, unsatisfied: in life the ship that might have been his had never come riding into his still and lazy harbors. All that was left to do was wait to see if the cigarettes or the booze killed him. At times, he’d be hypocondriacal, imagining cancers in his chest and brain that were really the marks of another world that had tainted him and left him unable to self-report to his better side the injustices he’d caused just to get along in life.
Another Story about Me
By this time you must know that I can sit in a dark room and conjure from the earth the last sounds of another world as it fades in frequency and duration from the airwaves, and it is only the way he is aligned on the bed that keeps him from hearing from this world from time to time. Right now I’m listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony as broadcast by the Berlin Philharmonic in March 1934. I’m also fiddling with a short story about a janitor who finds a knob to some sort of padlock on a wall in a hallway he cleans everyday. Twisting the knob takes the guy back to any number of other hallways, each slight different in concept, action, and outcome. Each hallway is a different place. In some places the traveler gets really sick in the hallway he has chosen to visit and just sits scrunched along the wall, waiting for it all to stop. In other places he contacts all sorts of people, some of whom he knows, others that he’s never met and never likely to see again. In one case his confronts and ex-lover in a room adjacent to his fabulous hallway, but she is all about bird-watching in the Rockies and could care less about him.
The White Landscape
The first time I saw my father after his death occurred one night when he drove up to my house in an old grey Lincoln Continental with suicide doors. We drove the western highway that lead past an old airbase, and as when he was alive, we sat and parked, watching the planes light the dusky sky with their red and blue navigation beacons, watched the last of the sunlight rub against those planes flying further West.
In these Western Lands the most predominant feature the traveler encounters are the small old homes in the desert, whole towns which at first glance in the distance look livable and habitable. There is no Light there, only the perpetual silence of buildings where the long ago lost belongings of others had accumulated: in piles you find watches and jewelry, wallets, and many, many photographs, drawings, even, sometimes, maps and postcards, placards and even street signs. And these things fade: all of the windows in all of the homes are broken, all of the warehouse doors locked, there’s a constant sense of abandonment, war, and hopelessness; yet, almost in conspicuous contrast some families continue to live in the small pink stucco homes lining a deep canyon where many of their friends and relatives have fled into the woods to live. This is the land of the dead, where you might find yourself wandering known landscapes with known family members in search of some life, some sign of hope. Trapped as the others are, your only hope is to reach the remains of that one home you remember best: warm food, the twilight glow of soft white light from the 60 watt GE lifestyle bulbs, the television on, something familiar. It is all the hope the dead have here, my father explains as we pull up to one old house where you can hear the 100-year-old echoes of children playing in dry lots along the acequias, in summertime far from here.